Playoff season is here and Portland Trail Blazers conversation is running wild. Players and coaches, broadcasters and media types, average Joes and Josephines on the street all have ideas about Portland's 0-2 start against the Memphis Grizzlies. Some of this analysis is insightful, some...less so.
We may not have all the answers to Portland's conundrum with the Grizzlies but we know hooey when we hear it. Here are 5 ideas floating around the internet that merit more raised eyebrows than nods of agreement.
"Returning to the Moda Center is Going to Turn This Series"
What I'm NOT Saying: Portland won't win at home.
What I am Saying:
Here's the Blazers chasing a victory so far...
There's a chance that changing time and venue is going to change that story as well, but...yeah, no. Playing at home is not that strong of a factor in a case like this.
The Blazers lost both regular season home games to the Grizzlies just like they've lost every other game this year. Memphis' margin of victory was actually greater in Portland (9.5) than in their own arena (7.5). They sported a 24-17 record away from home this year, 5th best in the league.
Days of rest between games may be more significant to the Grizzlies' fortunes than venue. Memphis averaged 98.3 ppg during the season as a whole. When given 3+ days to prepare for a game, that average ballooned to 104.8 with their shooting percentage rising from 45.8% to 47.6%. Their biggest potential weakness--offensive production--evaporates in these situations.
Portland's deficits in the first 2 games of this series were 14 and 15 points. They didn't get crushed because they were in Memphis. They lost because the Grizzlies kicked their butt in nearly every conceivable way it could be kicked. Shooting, scoring, three-point percentage, assists, defense, turnovers, fast breaks, points in the paint, second chance points, bench production...everything has gone Memphis' way. Colors painted on the floor can't save you from that kind of onslaught.
Portland had 4 days to prepare for Game 1, 3 days to make adjustments between Games 1 and 2. They played their premium players for major minutes in each outing, fielding the best lineups the could put together. It's not like they took a second-rate shot at this. Still, neither game was close.
If the Blazers or their fans think that Moda Center alone will fix the situation, we can just call the series right now. Saying, "Thank goodness we're home," might as well be code for, "Seriously, we have zero other ideas to turn it around."
If the Blazers do win at home, it will be because they executed, hit shots, rebounded, and stopped letting the Grizzlies guards do whatever they damn well please. That kind of play is locale-independent. Either you do it or you don't. The Blazers haven't and they've lost.
Even if the Moda Center were the magical cure for Portland's troubles, not owning homecourt advantage in the series makes the benefit moot. In the best-case scenario Portland still loses the series 4-3. Both the Blazers and their fans better hope other factors matter more than venue. We don't need to hear how playing on the home court is going to be so much better for the Blazers, we need to see the Blazers play so much better for themselves, home or away.
"Portland's Stars Aren't Showing Up"
What I'm NOT Saying: LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are playing efficiently.
What I AM Saying:
During the regular season LaMarcus Aldridge averaged 20 field goal attempts per game, Damian Lillard 17. In the first 2 games of this series Aldridge averaged 27 attempts, Lillard 18.5.
During this series Aldridge has exceeded his rebounding average 14 to 10, increased blocked shots from 1 per game to 4, upped free throw attempts from 5 to 7.5. Lillard's free throw attempts have risen exactly that amount as well.
These guys are trying. They are showing up. Aldridge in particular is giving everything he has and then some.
Not everything is rosy. Lillard and Aldridge are shooting inefficiently. Aldridge's field goal percentage has dropped from a 46.6% season average to 37%. Lillard's percentage has fallen off a cliff, 43.4% to 27%. His three-point percentage has followed suit, 34.3% to 9.1%. Lillard's assists have gone from 6.2 per game to 2.0.
You can argue that Russell Westbrook would be faring better in this situation than Aldridge and Lillard are. It's probably true. But Portland's system isn't predicated on that type of play. Under Terry Stotts the Blazers have always been an, "It all works together or it all falls apart" kind of team. They're not built to be carried by 1 or 2 players. No matter how much Aldridge and Lillard try to take over, it'll never prove as successful as the entire team executing well. The superstars aren't the problem right now, the team is.
If we're going to point fingers, they need to land on the other starters, players just below the stars in the pecking order.
Portland's regular shooting guards have been out all series. If Wesley Matthews were healthy and standing in the corner to receive passes from Lillard or around-the-horn swings off of Aldridge post-ups, the story would be different. The Blazers might not have won in Memphis but the losses wouldn't have been so severe.
Instead of riding Matthews, the Blazers watched Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum combine for 9 points in 52 minutes in each of their first 2 games. By comparison, Matthews' scoring numbers produce 24.6 points in 52 minutes, Arron Afflalo's 18.2.
McCollum is shooting 4-21 for the series, 0-6 from the three-point arc. Every time you see him miss, especially on an open three-pointer, you're watching the Grizzlies defense get a "Get out of Jail Free" card. They do not care what McCollum does anymore. They don't have to bother. Instead they're free to contest every shot in the lane, keep a man glued to Lillard on the perimeter, and focus on Aldridge knowing he has nowhere to throw the ball that matters.
Nicolas Batum is shooting 37%, 33% from the arc, and averaging 13 points in 40 minutes per game. At this point the Grizzlies don't care what he does with the ball either.
With 2 of Portland's key scorers laying eggs and Robin Lopez a non-factor on offense, there's no way Lillard and Aldridge are going to escape Memphis' attention. And when the Grizzlies pay attention to you on defense, the road gets plenty steep.
Aldridge and Lillard will likely take the blame if their shooting and Portland's overall scoring don't resuscitate, but their woes are more symptom than cause. Unless the three-point shooting of McCollum, Batum, Crabbe, et al. inches towards 40%, unless they prove themselves credible scoring threats, don't expect the Grizzlies to let up on Portland's stars one bit and don't expect the team to prosper no matter how many points those stars score.
Blazers fans should be familiar with this scenario. It's exactly what happened during the Trail Blazers-Rockets series last year. Except the shoe is now on the other foot with Memphis playing superior team ball and the Blazers reduced to riding a couple superstars in a disjointed, and ultimately ugly, offensive attack.
"Nagging Injuries are Causing the Blazers to Lose"
What I'm NOT Saying: Injuries aren't a factor in the series.
What I AM Saying:
Injuries have certainly played a major role in Portland's demise. Wesley Matthews, Arron Afflalo, Dorell Wright, and Chris Kaman have missed one or both games. We just talked about suffering at the level right below the stars. This is why. Anyone saying, "Forget the injuries! The Blazers just have to play! Terry Stotts just has to coach them better!" has a screw loose. Technically speaking only half of the Blazers are actually playing. This, in turn, limits Coach Stotts' options considerably.
As 1 loss turned into 2 this week with no relief in sight, a new explanation began floating through the ether. I'm not sure where it came from, but it's drifting like tendrils of fog across the landscape:
"Don't forget LaMarcus Aldridge's thumbs."
"Don't forget Damian Lillard may be playing with a sprained hand."
"Don't forget Nicolas Batum has been battling those wrist issues,"
"Don't forget these guys are tired because Coach Stotts relies on his starters big-time."
OK, we won't forget. Now let's stop pretending that these are serious contributing factors to the losses so far in this series. The Blazers played through those injuries in the regular season as well. Nobody wrapped them up in a bow like the Grizzlies are doing right now...except maybe those same Grizzlies.
The Blazers won 51 games with a 103 ppg average this year. They've won 0 games with a 84 ppg average in the playoffs. Portland's best scorers are shooting astonishingly poorly compared to their norm. Nobody's hand inflamed that badly between Games 70-82 of the regular season and last Sunday.
Take a poll among the top 240 players around the NBA and ask them who's not dealing with aches, nagging injuries, and fatigue at the end of the season. I doubt anybody's hand will go up. Mike Conley is limping around with plantar fasciitis and he's still shooting 54.5% and scoring 17 a game against the Blazers, both above his season averages.
I don't deny that players are hurting and tired. We should never forget how Aldridge gave up surgery in a contract year to stay with his team and help them win. But both teams are banged up. One is beating the other by 14.5 points per game right now. That's the real story.
"Damian Lillard Suddenly Got Worse"
What I'm NOT Saying: Lillard is playing at his peak.
What I AM Saying:
Damian Lillard now isn't that much different than the model we've watched for the last 3 years. His national profile may have changed with "The Shot" and subsequent commercial spots, but his basketball profile remains similar.
Lillard is a very good scorer with enough courage for an army and enough tricks in his bag to keep you guessing. He needs help on both ends of the court: enough shooters around him to keep the lane open, big men inside to seal off the rim when he lets his man get a step on him, fellow guards and forwards to switch onto his man when a matchup gets to be too much. Right now we're seeing what happens when he doesn't get that help: offensive efficiency plummets and he's hung out to dry on defense.
There's no shame in this. Lillard is just completing his 3rd season. It'll take 1-2 more to hit the early part of his prime, 5-6 before he's a seasoned playoff veteran. He'll average out to great before then but learning to deal with extraordinary scenarios will require experience he just doesn't have yet.
Even when he blossoms fully, Lillard will still need help around him. Transplant Kobe Bryant onto the Philadelphia 76'ers and he'll still be Kobe Bryant. Put Tim Duncan there and you're not going to get the best out of him. Duncan is great because of enormous personal talent married with good teammates in a great system. Lillard needs the same.
Damian Lillard is not getting exposed in this series. He's the same Lillard he always was, just pushed to an extreme of a probability spectrum without having enough experience to deal with it.
"LaMarcus Aldridge Will Leave Because of the Poor Performance Against Memphis"
What I'm NOT Saying: Aldridge will remain a Blazer.
What I AM Saying:
Despite the swirl of media rumors I still deem Aldridge departing unlikely at this juncture. We'll talk more about why when the Blazers exit the playoffs. It's too early to get into it now.
While I don't question the viability of suggesting Aldridge will leave, I do question the timing and implied causation. If a perfectly content LaMarcus Aldridge changes his mind about Portland based on a single playoff series--when every wing on the roster was injured in a draw against the worst possible opponent--his heart is...quite inconstant. That doesn't make sense.
I do not think there's any chance that Portland's success or failure against the Grizzlies will determine Aldridge's course of action this summer. He'll have reasons to stay or go, but the win-loss record in this 2-week span won't rank highly among them. Tying the two together by bringing up the matter in the middle of a playoff series seems opportunistic, if not disingenuous.
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